Most of the world’s major religious traditions teach some variation of the Golden Rule, the same rule many kids learn in kindergarten: Treat others as you want to be treated. At the root of this common moral principle lie two fundamental recognitions. Despite our myriad differences, we all want and deserve fair and kind treatment, and we are all deeply interconnected — dependent on one another and responsible for each other. In my own tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we express these principles in our covenant to affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interconnected web of existence.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare with terrifying clarity the truth of these principles. It is reminding us that we literally depend on each other for survival. When I wear a face covering, I protect you; when you wear a face covering, you protect me. And it is teaching us that we are all only as safe as the most vulnerable among us. If we as a society don’t protect those who can’t afford rent from becoming homeless, we put everyone at greater risk. If we imprison asylum seekers or condone the policies of mass incarceration, we ensure that the virus will continue tearing through our overcrowded jails and prisons and into surrounding communities. And if we continue to disproportionately invest in a broken system of policing instead of health care, education, affordable housing and public services, we will continue to undermine both public health and public safety.
The simultaneity of COVID-19 and the uprisings against systemic racism and police brutality is no coincidence. In addition to our interdependence, the pandemic also reveals where our social, political and economic systems are broken. It reveals the ugly truth of systemic racism that puts Black and brown people at greater risk not only of illness, but also of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, incarceration and police violence.
The great American writer and activist James Baldwin famously said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” By forcing us to face truths that have been long denied in this country, the pandemic offers us all a choice. Are we going to give in to fear, hatred and blame, doubling down on the ideologies and practices of individualism, competition, white supremacy and state violence? Or are we going to take this time of shutdown, uncertainty and unrest to reflect on our shared interests and to reimagine who we want to be as people, as communities, as a country?
In San Mateo County, it seems we aren’t yet sure. On June 23, for example, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt a resolution supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and then approved a budget with a $12 million increase to the Sheriff’s Office, including nearly $1 million for new Tasers, and substantial cuts to a variety of safety net programs. In a time of pandemic and in a county where three men of color were killed with a Taser by law enforcement in a single year (2018), the juxtaposition between the supervisors’ words and deeds is stark indeed.
Like our county supervisors, many religious communities, businesses, organizations and individuals are waking up to the long-standing realities of systemic racism and police brutality and declaring publicly that Black Lives Matter. But we can’t just affirm that Black Lives Matter in words. We need to affirm that they matter in our budgets, in our policies, in our schools, in our houses of worship, in our workplaces and in our homes.
“Historically,” writes Arundhati Roy, “pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
May our descendants remember this pandemic time as the time we learned to protect ourselves by protecting each other, prioritizing the most vulnerable among us. May they remember this as the time we finally harnessed our collective power to build communities of justice and compassion for all, right here in San Mateo County.
Dr. Tovis Page is a Unitarian Universalist seminarian and the program coordinator for the Peninsula Solidarity Cohort, a group of more than 35 religious leaders from diverse traditions working to “leverage moral power for the common good” in San Mateo County.